NYU's First Amendment Watch has created a guide that outlines the rights of citizens in recording police actions in public spaces.

Photo: police car at a demonstration
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New York University’s First Amendment Watch has created a guide that outlines the rights of citizens in recording police actions in public spaces. The document draws upon nearly a dozen court decisions to formulate a legal roadmap and educational resource for documenting the conduct of public officials.

“Many millions of people have the capability to report news in a way that only journalists and film crews could do in the past, and the videos they capture have played a crucial role in shedding light on police misconduct,” says Professor Stephen D. Solomon, founding editor of First Amendment Watch, which is housed at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. “The First Amendment right to record public officials, such as the police performing their official duties in public, is central to our democracy. As such, it’s vital that citizens are aware of the legal protections and freedoms granted under the Constitution.”

“A Citizen’s Guide to Recording the Police” summarizes both rights and restrictions, providing supporting court decisions in illuminating the legal components relevant to the recording of police actions. These include: “The Right to Gather Information,” “The Right to Record and Share,” and “Time, Place, and Manner Restrictions—And Other Limitations.”

Notably, the guide explains why police cannot seize or view smartphone recordings under most circumstances. It also clarifies why the First Amendment protects not only the dissemination of recordings but also the making of the recordings themselves, citing ACLU v. Alvarez.

“The act of making an audio or audiovisual recording is necessarily included within the First Amendment’s guarantee of speech and press rights as a corollary of the right to disseminate the resulting recording,” wrote the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which decided the case in 2012. “The right to publish or broadcast an audio or audiovisual recording would be insecure, or largely ineffective, if the antecedent act of making the recording is wholly unprotected…Restricting the use of an audio or audiovisual recording device suppresses speech just as effectively as restricting the dissemination of the resulting recording.”

First Amendment Watch is an online news and educational resource designed for journalists, educators, students, and the general public. It documents contemporary threats to the freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and petition through daily updates, analysis, access to relevant legal cases, and historical background.